"There's a great spirit happening at Plaza--and it's kind of catching," said Plaza de la Raza executive director Alida Amabile. "It's the spirit that Margo created."
Margo is the late actress-turned-philanthropist Margo Albert (and wife of Eddie Albert), a driving force behind the inception of Plaza in the late '60s. Next Saturday, the Boyle Heights-based arts center will inaugurate its new Margo Albert Theatre with a production of Ray Bradbury's "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit."
"It's been a succession of little steps, building blocks," continued Amabile.
Indeed, the evolution of Lincoln Park (originally the site for the Los Angeles Zoo) has been slow in coming. It was 1969 when Albert, Frank Lopez, Ruben Salazar and Esteban Torres raised $100,000 to save the deteriorating park facilities (including a boathouse/gallery, administration building and all-purpose room).
In 1984, they expanded even further (with $1.5 million raised from the private sector) with the Ruben Salazar bicentennial buildings: a new studio, 200-seat theater and an additional arts building.
These days, Plaza is host not only to master classes by visiting artists (including the Alvin Ailey Dance Company) and touring art exhibits but to a film series (such as the recent Cantinflas festival) and an after-school program (staffed by 42 faculty members) for both childen and adults--in 90 subjects, ranging from guitar, flute and voice, to painting, sculpture, drama, film making, ballet, folklorico and jazz.
Amabile, 35, believes that the training should be matched by performance experience.
"So the dance companies are going out and performing for senior citizens, for schoolchildren and, most recently, for the Bishop Mahoney pastoral celebration at Dodger Stadium. The same goes with theater: (Plaza's production of) 'Tom Sawyer' was such a smash that the L.A. Junior Chamber of Commerce said, 'Other people must see these children--we're going to see what we can do to tour them.' And I'd love to do the same thing in music. We've been talking with the L.A. Philharmonic. . . . "
Other far-reaching plans include a playwrights' unit--"for young Hispanic professionals who perhaps don't have (access) to other institutions, a guest director program and a technical training program: set design, lighting, sound. And perhaps a floating stage (anchored) on the lake."
Amabile is not joking. She's watched groups like the Dance Theatre of Harlem slowly put themselves on the map. And with her 10 years of experience on the arts and business council in New York (preceded by degrees from New York University and the Harvard Institute in arts administration) the native New Yorker has brought both savvy and grit to her job (she was hired in 1985).
"I do everything--and that includes windows," she said, "the day-to-day operations and reorganizing administratively, so that Plaza can become the national institution it (should be). It's grown tremendously over the years. We have a $1-million endowment. Our yearly operating budget is a half-million (dollars). So you have to upgrade your systems and procedures.
"The key is funding, staffing and the right leadership. And we're also looking to expand with a meaningful membership list. Members pay anywhere from $5 to $1,000--well, we think they can be involved in more than giving a check. So that's what we're working on. Artists, senior citizens, parents are getting more interested."
Although she maintains Plaza's non-separatist attitude ("We serve the general community"), Amabile said that the center's primary function is "to meet the needs of our specific area. And some of those services are non-cultural. Eddie Albert has his own priorities for Plaza's future: in terms of nutrition, senior citizens, establishing a Hispanic women's committee.
"It's not overwhelming unless you think of it that way," she said. "It's just one day, one step at a time. And reaching out to people who're there to help you. I know it will succeed. I hope it will even surpass what Margo dreamed."